VersaMaker: Versatile Prototyping Machine (3D Printer, Laser Cutter, CNC Router, Paste Printer)
Back in high school, I was trying to build an electric longboard (see here). While I was prototyping it, I didn't have access to a 3D printer, CNC, or a laser cutter. This made the project very difficult because I would have to design the parts in CAD and then send them off to online machine shops to build. Not only was this very costly, but it also took a significant amount of time for them to make the parts and ship them back. If I needed revisions, it would take weeks before I got the part back in my hands. There were many components that I needed to be made. For instance, I designed an aluminum motor bracket that attaches the motor to the longboard truck, but it had to be CNC'd. I created an electronics enclosure and pulley shield, but those had to be 3D printed. I also designed a logo that I wanted laser engraved on the board, but that would require a laser cutter. If I had access to a 3D printer, CNC, and laser cutter, this electric longboard would have taken significantly less time and money to develop.
I eventually pushed to make this project into a startup (see below).
(This was an initial prototype video for my startup, VersaMaker. More about this at the bottom of this post).
The solution was pretty straightforward to me: make a single, affordable machine that has 3D printing, CNC milling, and laser cutting capabilities. I called the machine VersaMaker, (ie. Versatile + Making).
One notable design decision was to make each of the axes direct-screw-driven. Most 3D printers and laser cutters are belt-driven, but because this would also have CNC capabilities, I needed to make sure each axis had enough torque so that the cutting head wouldn't get stuck and cause the motors to skip steps. Although the machine would be much slower because each rotation of the motor shaft moves the toolhead less linear distance than belts would, the machine would have higher resolution because each step of the stepper motors move the toolhead less distance. I also made each linear shaft 10mm in diameter and out of polished tool steel for extra strength so that the momentum of the toolhead doesn't cause the shafts to flex. The linear bearings are also extra long at 40mm so that each moving part has more contact with the linear shafts.
For electronics, I used a Duet Wifi because it has built-in WiFi capabilities with a helpful dashboard. The ReprapFirmware also has additional functionalities that other firmwares like the popular Marlin doesn't. See here for G-Code differences.
I made four different toolheads for this project.
This 3D printing toolhead uses an E3D all-metal hotend so that it can print with many different high-temperature materials like polycarbonate and nylon. It also has a direct-drive extruder so the distance between where the force is applied on the filament and where it melts is minimized. This allows for more precise control of the material flow. Lastly, I included a BLTouch sensor for automatic bed tramming (leveling) so it can probe the bed to make sure the toolhead is always parallel to the plane of the bed.
This is a powerful 300W spindle so that the machine can cut through hard woods, plastics, PCBs, and aluminum (at low feedrates). When selecting a spindle, it was important for me to choose one with a "fan" at the top that is connected to the motor shaft for air cooling since the motor can get hot after extended use. The chuck also fits bits up to 16mm (0.63") in diameter which is huge as router bits aren't usually bigger than 0.25" in diameter. This toolhead connects to a motor speed driver so that the Duet Wifi can control the speed of the spindle.
This is a powerful 6W 405nM laser module. It's not powerful enough to cut through wood, but it can easily engrave materials like wood and leather. It can also cut through dark cardstock. I added a switch at the end to allow the machine to find the top of the material so it can space itself from the material at its focal length.
This paste extruder has a syringe with replaceable nozzle diameters and a stepper motor (attached in the rear). It can be used to print with materials like chocolate, icing, ceramics, silicone, etc. It can also be used in PCB prototyping where it dispenses solder paste on PCBs.
After building out this project, I thought many other people may be facing the same issues I did and may want to buy a product that had functionalities of 3D printers, CNC mills, and laser cutters. Instead of having to buy all three machines, they could save a lot of money and buy one machine, the VersaMaker. I set out to launch a startup and competed and won two business pitch competitions. Open Works EnterpRISE - https://technical.ly/baltimore/2017/10/17/open-works-enterprise-finalists/
O'Connor Fund - https://ventures.jhu.edu/tag/versamaker/
However, after winning these competitions, I realized that the target market was very small. My target market wasn't people who wanted a 3D printer, CNC, or laser cutter, it was people who wanted all three of them and couldn't afford to buy all three. Most companies can afford to buy all three even if the entry-level ones are roughly $3000 each. If individuals needed access to these machines, they could join a makerspace or send their designs to machine shops.
Realizing this, I set out to use the prize money to get a patent on a special 3D printing process that makes faster and stronger 3D prints.
Overall, my brief stint into startups was definitely a worthwhile one. I learned a ton in a short time from engineering, to marketing, to patent law, to incorporation, etc. I definitely want to be a founding member in a startup in the future; I'm just not sure which industry yet.